Obituary: Orion

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The Independent Culture
ELVIS PRESLEY was so innovative and so distinctive that there have been impersonators from the moment he started making hit records in 1956. Ral Donner scored hits in the early 1960s as a quasi-Elvis, and numerous singers, including Cliff Richard and Billy Fury, copied his stage actions.

However, it was Elvis's triumphant return to concert performances in the late Sixties wearing bejewelled jump suits, and his subsequent death in 1977, that caused promoters everywhere to send in the clones. The real thing was no more, and many Elvis impersonators made a good living, and still do, by acting out their fantasies on stage. Orion was the first to exploit Elvis's death and, notoriously, wanted to convince listeners that Elvis had faked his own death and was back performing. He wore a mask so the masquerade was not too transparent. His record releases were on Sun, the very label on which Elvis had started.

In reality, Orion was the club singer Jimmy Ellis, who was born in Orrville, Alabama, in 1945. Ellis recorded an album under his own name, Sometimes Words Just Get In The Way, for a small label in 1964. His fans remarked how closely he spoke and sang like Elvis. He maintained that it was coincidence.

In 1969 the Nashville entrepreneur Shelby Singleton acquired the back catalogue of Sun Records, though Elvis's tracks belonged to RCA. At first, Singleton marketed well-packaged reissues, but in 1972 he had Ellis record the titles on Elvis's first Sun single, "That's All Right (Mama)" and "Blue Moon Of Kentucky". They were released with a "?" for the artist, and it was mooted that they were alternative takes from Elvis's first recording session in 1954. However, Singleton had used an electric bass which had not even been invented at the time.

Undeterred, Singleton revived his hoax with Elvis's early death in 1977. The mysterious "?" released a yuletide single, "Don't Cry For Christmas," and Ellis's voice was added to familiar Sun tracks by Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and Charlie Rich. "Save The Last Dance For Me" by "Jerry Lee Lewis And Friend" was issued as a single in 1978.

The sleeve carried an endorsement from the song's composer, Doc Pomus, stating that he was sure it was Elvis. A voice test on the television programme Good Morning America confirmed that the mystery voice was indeed Elvis. Even the hard-bitten New Musical Express was fooled: Roy Carr wrote, "I reckon this track is genuine and as such it's quite magnificent - a timely reminder of when recording sessions used to be fun." By today's standards, Ellis was not even a particularly good Elvis soundalike. Whilst this was going on, Ellis released a tribute single under his own name, "I'm Not Trying To Be Like Elvis", and an album, By Request - Ellis Sings Elvis.

Also in 1978, the author Gail Brewer-Giorgio published a novel, Orion, which told of an Elvis-style rock star who faked his own death. (The name was derived from Elvis's middle name, Aaron.) This struck a chord with Shelby Singleton and so Jimmy Ellis became Orion, whose debut album, Reborn, was released by Sun on gold vinyl in 1979. The cover showed the masked singer emerging from a coffin.

Just as children believe in Santa Claus, some fans wanted to believe that Orion was Elvis. Orion took his persona so seriously that he even wore his mask for rehearsals. Quite often he appeared on shows with Elvis Presley's former vocal backing group, the Jordanaires.

The ersatz Elvis had several singles in the US country charts, including "Am I That Easy To Forget" (1980) and US versions of the British hits "Rockabilly Rebel" (originally by Matchbox) and "Crazy Little Thing Called Love" (Queen), both 1981. With commendable productivity, he recorded several albums for Sun, Sunrise (1979), Rockabilly (1980), Country (1980), Fresh (1981), Glory (1981) and Feelings (1981). He built up a considerable live following, then in 1983 he ripped off his mask before a capacity audience and vowed never to wear it again.

The full-faced Jimmy Ellis was nowhere near as popular and so in 1987 Ellis returned to the mask and his Orion persona. He released an album, New Beginnings, in 1987 and said at the time, "I don't mind being compared to Elvis, but I always wanted my own identity as an artist."

Orion found his comeback hard because, by then, Elvis impersonators had become commonplace: nowadays, there are Asian, Chinese and even female Elvises. Ellis and his girlfriend, Elaine Thompson, also ran a general store in Selma, Alabama. They were there when an armed robbery took place and both lost their lives. Ellis's last performance as the pseudo-Elvis had been in Nashville a week earlier.

Jimmy Hodges Ellis (Orion), singer: born Orrville, Alabama 26 February 1945; one son; died Selma, Alabama 12 December 1998.